In the first of three parts, Peter Vessey paints a picture of what life was like during WWI at the University of Birmingham.

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While most people involved with the University of Birmingham know that, in 1914, the University’s new site at Bournbrook was handed over to the War Office to become the First Southern Regional Hospital, not many know what else the Institution got up to.

The University had been warned of the possible need for the requisition of its buildings as far back as 5th October 1910. It opened for medical business on 12th August 1914 and received its first convoy of patients from Moor Street Station on 1st September. By the end of the war, some 65,165 men had been treated on the campus, which also acted as the administrative centre for two satellite institutions: The Second Birmingham War Hospital at Northfield, and the Fourth Ancillary Hospital at Moseley. In all, some 125,780 cases had been handled in some respects from the university’s new buildings. The buildings around Chancellor’s Court were adapted to provide 800 bed spaces, some of them in marquees erected outside, together with their relevant sanitary accommodation, and a number of operating theatres. The Harding Library was transformed into a chapel. On 22nd July 1915, the hospital was visited by George V during his two-day visit to Birmingham.

The War Office also rented the women’s hostel, University House, for £190 per month to utilise it as a nurse’s home for 126 nurses

The university retreated, and retracted, back to Edmund Street. The War Office also took over the running of the University Power Station, though retaining most of the civilian staff, and the Physics Block (currently R9) became a dormitory for around 150 male orderlies. The War Office also rented the women’s hostel, University House, for £190 per month to utilise it as a nurse’s home for 126 nurses, which was only achieved by putting two nurses in some of the rooms. The female students were moved out to two large houses, Sir John Ratcliffe’s Wyddrington House & Vice-Chancellor Beale’s Maple Bank (both on Church Road) which were kindly lent to the university at no charge.

Birmingham was not the only university to house a hospital for the duration – part of University of Durham was also used. Bristol was home to the Second Southern Regional Hospital and Leeds, while not having their buildings requisitioned, was staffing two of the northern hospitals. At Oxford, the military were utilising the Town Hall, the New Schools, and Somerville College, and the students of the latter were having to inhabit the vacant North Quad at Oriel College, nicknamed ‘The Sororiel’ for the duration.

While nothing much about actual enlistment for fighting shows up in the minutes of various committees until just before the commencement of hostilities, at the Senate meeting some months earlier in February ‘14, the Principal reported that Professor John Cadman had been thanked by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty for having been on a ‘mission of national importance’ (he had been exploring the oil fields of Persia in 1913). Three months later, in May, the students started a War and Peace Society.

In June 1914 both Physics and Electrical Engineering were reported as being involved in research in radiotelegraphy and even in radiotelephony with aerials strung in various directions from the gallery of the Clock Tower; although, in the interests of National Security, the Post Office ordered them to desist; and in August the Faculty of Medicine was responding to the needs of the Army and Navy who were gearing up for war and requiring numbers of doctors and surgeons.

A couple of months later, in October, when the country had moved into war status, the Senate moved quickly, and in some surprising directions. Realising that service pay was unlikely to match academic stipends, or even their more lowly employees’ wages, they resolved that any serving member of staff would have their pay topped up to university levels so that families would not suffer, and their posts would be held over for them ‘with no loss of status and emoluments.’

For the students, any scholarships and exhibitions would be held for the holders’ returns and not devolved to other students. In the case of the remaining staff, as the cost of living increased and the price of food doubled over the four years, rather than giving everybody increases in their emoluments, the University Council paid everybody a temporary and variable ‘War Allowance’, thus allowing staff incomes to revert when peace returned.

The Principal, Oliver Lodge, had to report that Professor Chatelain had died of an infection caught in the trenches

At the Senate meeting of October 1914, the Faculty of Arts reported that Dr. Ottokar Intze, Lecturer in German, who had been spending the summer vacation visiting his family, had not returned as he had been conscripted for military service in his homeland. He had invited three students to visit Germany with him and, unfortunately, they had to spend the war interned in the Civilian Rhuleben Camp on the edge of Berlin. Intze was posted to the Eastern (Russian) Front and, by the end of the war was suffering from shell shock.  Also, Henri Louis Chatelain, Professor of French, and Monsieur Paul Demey, Lecturer in French, had both headed home to France as volunteers. A year later, the Principal, Oliver Lodge, had to report that Professor Chatelain had died of an infection caught in the trenches. At once, the university set up an appeal fund for Madame Norvege Chatelain and her children living nearby in Kings Norton and, by December’s meeting of the Senate, this had grown to £2,300.  Further down the scale, Wilhelm Karl Ottokar Goebel, a graduate of Berlin University due to take various courses at the university, had remained in the Fatherland despite being booked into the Men’s Hostel.

Security also struck again: in June 1916 the Faculty of Arts reported that Dr Intze’s superior, Professor Karl Wichmann, was now forbidden to live within ten miles of Birmingham. This left the German courses, not just in the Faculty of Arts, but also in the Faculty of Commerce, floundering for lecturers to continue the courses in both language and literature.  Karl went to live in Wolvercote near his brother-in-law, Hermann Feilder, professor of German at Oxford. His naturalisation was revoked in 1918 and, in the early ‘20s, Wichmann and his wife, Minna, were forcibly repatriated back to Germany and they settled in Charlottenburg.

In November 1914, the Principal reported that two members of the academic staff were already serving in the British forces, and Professor James Morrison was heading the Servian Relief Expedition, along with Dr. Maitland and the ‘four best surgical students’. Two years later it was announced that Morrison and his team were now working at the typhus camp outside Uskub which had been over-run by the Bulgars, but were able to co-exist with the invaders.

At their November 1914 meeting, the Senate also determined that refugees of sufficient academic standing would be admitted to university courses without having to pay any fees, though they were still liable for their own upkeep. The first ones to benefit were Lucie Grube (Arts), and André Van der Kindere (Commerce) who, since they were already at the university, had their fees reimbursed. The first new applicant under the scheme was Monsieur van Remoorlel (Mining) but there is no record of his ever actually arriving at the university, so the first refugee fresher recorded was Leopold Strappers (Medicine). He was soon joined by a number of other Belgians, of both sexes, enrolling in a variety of courses, and a Serbian, Miloche St. Ilitch, also to study Medicine. Another five Serbians arrived at Christmas 1917. The last refugee known to have benefited from this university policy was a Belgian, Monsieur van Acker, who entered the School of Medicine in 1918. 

Female students, who by now outnumbered the men, organised themselves to work on farms in the long vacation

Even students who hadn’t enlisted were also doing their bit. They set up a committee to organise student work in local factories and workshops that had been converted to the production of munitions. Also, female students, who by now outnumbered the men, organised themselves to work on farms in the long vacation doing fruit-picking, harvesting and dairy work.

In addition, the Y.M.C.A. put out an appeal for volunteers: to go out to France and Belgium ’to relieve boredom’ by giving lectures to off-duty soldiers. The suggested subjects, including military and political history, did not necessarily seem to be designed to relieve the atmosphere.

Inevitably the Principal also had to start reporting the deaths of the volunteers. As early as May 1915 he named six, Messrs. James Gordon, Wilfred Allkins, Allan Barclay, Albert Tonkinson, Geoffrey Dix, & Harold Lovesy.  Also in 1915, the University lost its only female alumna casualty, Dr. Elizabeth Impey, who was travelling out to India to take up a post at a women’s hospital in Lahore, when she died on 30th December in the torpedoing of the S.S. Persia by U-38. In 1908 she had been the first woman to be President of the Guild of Undergraduates.


This is the first of a three-part series on UoB during WWI. The second and third instalments are both available in our Features section.